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“Middlesex” a review: gender identity

Book cover of Middlesex.

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Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex is a breathtaking inter-generational novel that addresses issues of the complex history of Eastern Europe, Greek identity, Greek-American identity, growing up in the U.S., and intersex and other LGBTQA identities. It would be easy to talk all day about the complexities of this novel as well as Eugenides’ exquisite prose writing, however, I wanted to look at the way that LGBTQIA and specifically intersex identities are treated in the novel.

Many people suggest that the ‘real’ story does not begin until about page 200 (roughly halfway through the novel), although I would argue that this is not the case. Cal’s story does take off in this section of the novel which is arguably a crucial story-line, however, to understand how and why Cal grows up the way they do, it is important to look at the family’s history. This also goes beyond the fact that Cal’s grandparents were brother and sister and extends further into how sexuality, gender, and gender roles are treated. To say that a misunderstanding of sexuality and gender is just a Greek cultural phenomena is to simplistic. Arguably, this problem of not having the right words or ways to talk about gender and sexuality in relation to identity is a common thread throughout most families. Whilst each culture and/or religion might have different blind spots or problematic ways to address sexuality and gender, it is profoundly clear that we, as humans, do not have all the right words yet.

The story of Cal is told in a way that suggests that the adults in their life missed all the signs that pointed to the fact that Cal was intersex. Through a lack of understanding about gender and sexuality, Cal’s parents ignore what is right in front of them. Cal’s father does not even like to change Cal’s nappies when they are a baby girl because Cal is a girl. When Cal is a teenager and they discover that Cal’s genitals are not ‘normal’ (fitting in the binary of male or female exclusively) doctors and parents alike treat the issue as a pathology. Something that needs to be fixed.

The World Health Organisation recently acknowledged that transgender is not a mental health issue, which they said would hopefully help remove the stigma around transgender rights and health care. The fact that this has only been done recently shows how little we have done in the way of making sure that people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth are safe and supported. Returning to Middlesex we can see the lack of words we have to really describe, help, and support people like Cal. Cal has to learn by trial of fire and I have to wonder, what would it be like for the real Cal’s all over the world if we had better language, knowledge, support, love, trust, care, and respect for them?

Have you read any of Eugenides’ novels? What do you think about the way we talk about the LGBTQIA community? How do you think we can educate people better? As always, share the reading love.

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